by Nicole Wolverton
BLOOM: Lived experience plays a significant part in The Revolution of Every Day. Cat, in particular, as the elder statesman–so to speak–of the group has a cynical outlook that appears borne of too many experiences. How do you think this plays into your personal view of aging and its influence on lived experience and memory?
CL: Is it awful that I haven’t yet given all that much thought to aging? That is, I can’t say I have a personal view of it. Not yet. I’m about to turn 41. [editor’s note: This interview took place several months ago]. That’s the same age as Cat is in the book, now that I think of it. I suppose I’m middle-aged now. With any luck, I’ll keep getting older. I would like to get to be quite old. Beyond that? I don’t know… I don’t give my age all that much thought. Cat had a rough go of it, and that left her weary and cynical at 41, but I don’t see that as a function of aging, but rather of too much hard experience. You can be rundown and done at twenty, or you can just be getting started at fifty, or anywhere along that continuum.
BLOOM: While I know you lived in New York and were able to witness first-hand some of the events that inspired your novel, the amount of research you had to have done is amazing. What is your research process (especially since you don’t outline prior to writing), and what is the one piece of research you dug up–whether it made it into the novel or not–that you were must struck by?
CL: On the night of July 4, 1995, I saw squatters retaking two buildings on East 13th Street on New York City’s Lower East Side that had been evicted the previous May 30. It was a symbolic retaking—they had no hopes of holding the buildings. They broke in, hung banners that read “HOME,” and escaped before anyone could be arrested. I was only 21 years old at the time and didn’t fully understand what I was witnessing, but the scene made a strong impression on me, and when I began to write the novel I thought of as my love letter/Dear John letter to New York in 2005, I recalled that night on Thirteenth Street, and began to research the events that led up to it. What I learned: the eviction of those two buildings on May 30th involved hundreds of police officers in riot gear, mounted police, snipers, helicopters, and an armored tank to remove thirty or so people from the homes they’d occupied for over ten years. That tank struck me—and it does indeed appear in the book—but the thing that most resonated for me in my research was a photo of a protest sign that was held up at that May 30th eviction. The sign read: LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION OF EVERYDAY LIFE. I got chills when I saw that. It summed up the whole thing for me—what the squats were about; what the characters were after; the fact that the novel—though certainly political—is mostly concerned with the characters’ personal, individual struggles. That protest sign gave The Revolution of Every Day its title. And, of course, my title is also a tip of the hat to the book the sign references: The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem. As for my research process: undiscriminating and ravenous. I read everything I could get my hands on related to squatting in general and the history of squatting on the Lower East Side in particular. This didn’t actually amount to a great deal of material: I found some newspaper articles from the time, a few old list-serv posts, a small handful of excellent books. The Revolution of Every Day was inspired by actual history, but it takes great liberties. Which is to say: I’m a novelist. I made a lot up as I went. It’s gratifying, though somewhat surprising, when former squatters from that era thank me for “getting it right.” I really did invent a lot.
BLOOM: There’s a very interesting dynamic that happens in your novel where, despite ultimately being squatters, the residents of Thirteen House are focused on homesteading, building community, and improving the neighborhood in a lot of ways. They would be considered homeless, however, because 13 House is an abandoned building. At the end of last year, the New York Times published a devastating series about a homeless girl and her family living in a city-run shelter, and it’s easy to make the comparison between how this girl lives and how the residents of 13 House lived. Could you talk a little about the homesteading movement and its relationship to traditional homelessness?
CL: I don’t think any of the squatters would have considered themselves homeless while they were living in the buildings, nor were they considered homeless legally, to the best of my knowledge. They received mail at the squats, and paid utility bills in their own names once they had rehabilitated a building to the point of being able to get gas and electricity and water running. They did their best to establish residence in the buildings, and to document that, so they could then make a legal claim for adverse possession. The illegal squatting movement on the Lower East Side in the 1980s and 1990s very much grew from the legal, federally supported homesteading program of the 1970s. In the 1970s, when New York was in the depths of fiscal crisis, groups could apply to homestead a building on the Lower East Side for as little as a dollar. The government would go so far as to deliver building supplies to them. Both the city and federal programs ended in the early 1980s, as real estate values began to recover, but the need for affordable housing in the neighborhood was even greater at that point. And so the squatters took over where the legal homesteaders had shown the way—moving into abandoned, city-owned buildings and restoring them. The difference was that, because it was now an illegal activity, it attracted a more radical population. But the squatters of the Lower East Side were homesteaders. Absolutely. Many of them squatted for political reasons related to housing rights and homelessness. For them, squatting was a form of direct action. The goal was to create permanent, low-income housing in a part of New York that was gentrifying at an alarming rate. I wrote about the actual history of the NYC homesteaders and squatters in an article for Jacobin, in case readers want more in-depth information.
BLOOM: Which of the characters in the novel could you relate to the most? The least?
CL: I related to all of them. Each of them comes from me, is, in some ways, an aspect of me. I don’t believe everything they believe, nor would I make many of the choices they make, but by the same token they aren’t capable of thoughts I’m incapable of. Steve came to me very easily, mostly because I fell in love with him as I wrote him, but Cat was a real struggle to pin down. I’d say that I struggled with Cat because she contained elements of me that I didn’t want to look at.
BLOOM: You’ve been promoting The Revolution of Every Day since its release in September 2013. What is the strangest thing that has happened at an event or as a result of the novel’s publication?
CL: Well, not strange, but unexpected and a wonderful gift: At a reading I gave at Pulpfiction Books in Vancouver, BC, I read a passage from the novel that’s told from the point of view of Amelia, a twenty-three-year-old who lives in the squats with thirty-six-year-old Gerrit. He took her in when she was a teen runaway, and they’ve had an ambiguous sort of sexual relationship since then, one very much based in an uneven power dynamic. Her time on her own in the city before Gerrit was rough, and the section I read hints at past sexual abuse. Amelia feels unmoored, powerless, and beholden to Gerrit. She fears his reaction to the news of her unplanned pregnancy, and he verbally abuses her before the scene ends. While I read, I noticed a young woman listening very closely, pitched forward in her seat. During the Q&A period after the reading, she raised her hand and asked, “How did you decide what part to read tonight?” She was nearly in tears as she told me how deeply she’d connected with Amelia. Hearing that passage about a young woman close to her age, and with a similar history and challenges, she felt understood. She felt seen. I was alternating between two excerpts from the novel on that book tour: the one from Amelia’s point of view, and another from the perspective of forty-two-year-old Steve. I had originally planned to read the Steve section that night, but switched to the Amelia section when I saw that young woman walk into the bookstore. I don’t know, precisely, why. It was a gut thing. “I chose to read that section because I love Amelia,” I said in response to her question, “and I wanted to tell her story.” I was close to tears, too, by that point. It was profound to connect so directly with a reader, an experience I’m deeply grateful for. I came away from that exchange with more than warm feelings, though. I came away with the realization that the woman wasn’t only reacting to the story of Amelia and how it echoes her own, but also to the usual absence of that story. She had never before heard her own experiences reflected in a character, given the validation inherent in a printed book’s authority. That night she’d seen herself as someone whose story merited telling. That night changed the way I thought about my writing—changed my understanding of what defines “political” fiction. As writers, we get to decide for ourselves who gets to speak, and what stories merit telling.
BLOOM: I’m fascinated by the “Writer, With Kids” and “Writer, With Fetus” features you run on your website. So many people I know say they don’t have time to devote to their dreams because they’re too busy with family. What was the impetus for the features and what is the importance of building a community of artists balancing issues of family, creativity, and work?
CL: A few years ago, when my younger child was still a baby, I was really struggling to find the balance between writing and parenting. Because my kids were so young, of course the balance tipped heavily in favor of the parenting, leaving precious little writing time. I spoke to some writer friends whose kids were older to ask how they were managing it and what advice they might offer, and the responses helped me so much that I decided to make the conversations public, and began posting them on the blog. Writers including Jane Smiley, Geraldine Brooks, Susan Choi, and Peter Rock have contributed. I’ve gleaned a few helpful tips from the posts, but for the most part what I take away from them is inspiration and comfort. It’s just good to know you’re not out there struggling alone. Some really amazing authors have walked the same sticky path and have managed to create great work; I can, too.
BLOOM: What’s next for you?
CL: I’ve just finished the first draft of my next novel, and am eager to begin revising. It’s about online vs. real-life identity and sexual obsession.